Monday, February 1, 2016

Serfdom in Eastern Europe

Ukrainian Peasant Family. Painting by Taras Shevchenko, 1845

According to my Great Aunt Katherine Rychly Pylatiuk, my grandmother's family were once serfs.  There is a good chance that my other ancestors were serfs as well, but I don't have that information.
The Rychly family were farmers, living in Galicia, part of the Austrian Empire,  just outside the city of  Ternopil' in a village named Bila, (sometimes spelled Biala). Katherine said that her mother, Maria Bryniak Rychly repeated stories her mother,  Barbara Steciuk Bryniak, told her about the time when peasants were required to work on the landlord's land. Maria was born in 1873, so her mother was born in the early 1850's,  shortly after Austrian serfs were emancipated.  She called the practice of working on the landlord's land the "pansjchyna."The peasants were required to work on his land 3 days a week, and the rest of the time, they worked their own farms.  On Sunday, no work was done, so that left 3 days for peasants to work for themselves.

Serfdom in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and later in the Austrian Empire, and serfdom in Russia was similar to serfdom in Western Europe, but there were important differences.

What are serfs and what is serfdom?

The answer to this question has several answers, depending on the time and place where is was practiced.  The word serf comes from the Latin word servus meaning service.  In Old French the word serf meant slave.
A serf was a member of a servile feudal class who was bound to the land and was subject to the will of the owner.
In Europe serfdom was the status of many peasants/farmers under feudalism.

Serfdom in Medieval Europe 

Serfdom in the middle ages existed in Western Europe.  Serfs were the lowest class in society, and lived and worked on land owned by another person, usually a knight who was the vassal of a higher  ranked and more powerful noble.  The system was based on mutual obligations and contracts between the lord and his vassals.  In theory, the king owned the land, but since he couldn't directly rule land that was far away, he gave tracts of land to loyal nobles in exchange for  their loyalty and military service. Serfs were bound to the land, and if they tried to run away, they were returned to their lord.  They could become free if they managed to stay away for a "year and a day" or if they were granted freedom by their lord. The lords then gave smaller tracts (manors) to knights in their service, who ran the manors and ruled the serfs that lived on that land. Knights were required to protect the serfs in times of trouble.  In exchange, the serfs were required to give part of their crop to the knight(lord) and work on his roads and building projects This practice, the  corvee, lasted much longer than serfdom,  in France, it was still in existence in the 18th century.  Serfs were also required to serve the lord as soldiers if necessary.  Loyalty and mutual obligation was key in feudal Medieval Europe.
In Western Europe, serfdom died out in the fourteenth century, when the Bubonic plague, known as the Black Death killed thousands in Europe: royals, nobles, gentry and serfs.  The labor shortage caused by the plague made serfdom obsolete and it gradually died out.

Serfdom in Eastern Europe

Serfdom came to Eastern Europe much later than to Western Europe. Serfdom no longer existed in Western Europe when it developed in the East. It appeared last and disappeared last in Poland and Russia.  It was not as a result of or connected in any way with Feudalism as practiced in Western Europe.

Poland and Lithuania 1549

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the king was elected by the nobles. The king did not rule his subjects directly. The land was divided into estates, controlled by noble families. Not only did the nobles own the estates, they often owned the towns. The nobles ruled the people who lived on their estates.  Since the nobles controlled the political system and chose the king, they could raise demands on the peasants at will.  
Peasants became serfs during the late 15th century.  Originally, peasants living on an estate, paid the landlord rent for the use of the land, and were required to work the nobles' land as a way of paying the rent.  They were entitled to a small plot of land and were able to sell what ever they produced.   Peasants living on the estates were  also required to work on the noble's roads, (the corvee), a specific number of days a week. Historian Orest Subtelny said "As nobility's fortunes rose, those of the peasants declined." (History of Ukraine p. 90). 
In 1505, the Sejm, the governing body of nobles who ruled the Commonwealth, forbid peasants from leaving their village without the lord's permission.   Serfdom became law in 1557 when the Voloky Ustov was passed by the Sejm. The peasants right to own land was no longer legally recognized.  Since there was no strong central government, landlords were able to extract more and more from the peasants. Peasants could no longer run their own communities, nobles had the right to judge them and  to control  many aspects of their lives. They were now serfs, no better off than slaves. Serfdom was most prevalent in Galicia and Volhynia, but the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was large, and where labor was scarce, in the Eastern parts of the Commonwealth,  serfdom was rare or unknown.

Where population was low and labor scarce, serfdom was unknown.


Moscovy during the reign of Peter the Great, when serfdom was established. Source: Riasanovsky, History of Russia, 1963

Serfdom became law in Russia in 1649, but it existed long before that date.  Its foundations were build long before the Muscovite period and long before Russia came into existence.   Serfdom was the mainstay of Muscovite agriculture. It was most common in the southern, southeastern and western section of Russia, east of the Dniepr River.  By beginning of the 17th century, serfs could not leave their landowner's estates for any reason.  By the time the Ulozhenie of 1649 was passed, serfdom was firmly established.  This decree conformed the idea of "once a serf, always a serf."
Landowners were the judicial and police authority on their estates. and the serfs were at their mercy.
The landlords were members of the upper classes of Russia, and most were members of the nobility.   Eventually, serfs could be bought and sold and willed by their owners. By the end of the 17th century they were virtually slaves. 

Serfdom was extended and strengthened during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796). The practice spread to new areas, particularly to the lands acquired in the Partitions of Poland.  A series of laws passed between 1763-83 made serfs the most oppressed people in the Russian Empire.  These laws made it possible to control all aspects of a serf's life and gave landowners to right to sell entire serf families as well as individual serfs.
By 1796, 53% of all Russian peasants were serfs and 49% of the population of Russia were serfs.

In the next blog post, I will continue with the subject of serfdom in Eastern Europe, concentrating on more of the details of the lives of serfs.

Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine,
Doroshenko, Demeter, History of the Ukraine, Edmonton, 1939.

Plokyi, Serhii, The Gates of Europe, New York, 2015.
Riasonovsky, Nicholas, A History of Russia, New York, 1963.
Subtelny, Orest, Ukraine, A History, Toronto, 1988.